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Hinduism in Nepal
Buddhism
Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism
Kumari Devi: The Living Goddess

While Nepal is the world's only officially (constitutionally declared) Hindu nation, Hinduism as practiced in Nepal has some differences with Hinduism as practiced in India. It has mingled over the centuries with the Buddhism of the Tibetan hill tribes which make up a sizeable minority group in Nepal and has integrated many Buddhist themes and iconography into its Hindu practices. Thus, the two groups have lived and continue to live in relative harmony; religious disagreement takes place only in subtle and academic ways. Caste is part of Hinduism and Nepal has a caste system which is quite different from that in India and which is organized on ethnic and tribal lines; various groups refuse to accept the caste rankings put on them by the majority. Religion in Nepal is thus a complex intermingling of traditions, beliefs, actions and ceremonies which together form a rich and unique religious mix which impacts all areas of Nepalese life and culture.

Most of the population, around 87 %, are officially Hindu while only 5-7% are officially Buddhist. Most of the Buddhists live in the Eastern hills, the Kathmandu Valley and the central Tarai and are of Tibetan and Tibeto-Nepalese origin. There is a small number of Muslims, around 2-3 % of the population and an even smaller number of Christians.

Hinduism in Nepal

The basic beliefs of Hinduism are the same in Nepal as in India . Originating in the migration of the Aryan tribes from the area known today as Iran to the Indus valley, this tradition absorbed elements of the religions and cultures of the conquered peoples, the indigenous tribal cultures of the Indian plans and produced a flexible and often changing religion. It has been said, that as Hinduism evolved over three millennia, it added on many ideas, practices, gods, forms of worship and developed complex philosophical and theological discourses but it never discarded anything; thus people who engage in seemingly contradictory set of beliefs all call themselves Hindus. The religion of Hinduism focuses as much on actions as on beliefs and is intimately tired to particular ways of living; these practices vary greatly from group to group.

The earliest Hindu writings, and the ones still considered to be sacred (that which was heard by the sages) are the Vedas; acceptance of the truth and sacredness of these scriptures is one of the hallmarks of being a Hindu. Hindus believe in the unity of existence, the inter-relatedness of all things, including god and man. Thus, while there are many forms of gods and goddesses in Hinduism, the ultimate belief is that god is one and these are simply manifestations of the godhead. Likewise, man has a soul which is part of this godhead or ground of the universe; it is this connection that makes possible man’s religious search and ultimate desire to reunite with the ground of the universe, God or Brahman, as the Hindus call this concept of an impersonal force which creates and sustains all things.

Hinduism believes in the existence of a natural law called Dharma. This law is one for nature and human kind. The fact of existence in a particular place, in a particular time, in a particular situation imposes social and religious obligations on each person; these obligations, including ethical obligations, are not universal but are particular to each person’s situation. For example, for a member of the Brahman caste, the priests who must maintain purity at all times in order to worship on behalf of their communities, the eating of meat or the taking of life is forbidden as these acts would destroy the needed purity. On the other hand, the Ksatriyas or warrior caste have the duty (Dharma) to protect others; thus the taking of life is a necessary part of their Dharma and to refuse this is to violate that moral imperative.

The caste system, in which each person is born to a particular position with rights and duties stemming from that position, is a corollary to this idea of particular, not universal Dharma. While not absolutely essential, the caste system has been an integral part of Hinduism wherever it flourishes, in Nepal as in India. Caste is different from class in that the group into which one is born remains ones status throughout ones life; caste cannot be changed, it is a part of one’s inborn nature. Caste came to Nepal with the migration of the Indo-Aryans to the area, the emergence of a feudal economic structure and the appropriation of land by the high caste Hindu families from the tribal groups in Nepal. The Indo-Aryan migrants, in Nepal as in India, quickly came to dominate the indigenous peoples and to control power and authority which was based on individual land ownership. In the caste system in Nepal as in India, small caste groupings of endogamous groups, in which membership is hereditary and permanent, are loosely grouped into five larger grouping (priests, warrior and rulers, merchants, farmers, and untouchables. Non Hindu groups such as the Newars, also have developed their own caste divisions based on the Hindu model. These caste grouping, while no longer exclusive in terms of employment, are still important in terms of family and status as members typically marry within caste groupings.

The caste system, while often seen as an economic grouping is actually a rigid system of values based on ritual statues, purity and pollution. Caste determines each persons Dharma, his/her behavior, duties and expectations. The caste systems prescribes the social, economic, religious and political activities of each of its members as well as the interactions among persons from different castes. While caste intermarriage is frowned upon, it is becoming more common in modern times and is often the cause of the creation of new castes.

Two key and inter related concepts of Hinduism are Samsara and Karma. Samsara, the wheel of life, refers to the fact that Hindus believe that souls migrate through an infinite series of lives; souls are born in six different forms: the two heavenly forms of gods and heavenly beings; the two earthly forms of humans and animals, and two under worldly forms of hell beings and hungry ghosts. What determines the fate of an individual soul is the karma, or the actions performed by that person during his/her lifetime. Karma, which means action, is a concept of justice that believes that the consequences of each good or bad deed must be worked out, if not in this life, then in another. Thus, the position into which a person is born is determined by the mix of his/her actions in previous existences. Each person thus, is born into the position he/she has created and earned; good actions in this life will lead to a better life in the next incarnation.

The over-arching religious question and goal for Hindus then become how to break this cycle of reincarnation, how to escape the wheel of Samasara. Over the centuries, Hindu thinkers posited a variety of ways to do this, ranging from the intellectual to the intuitive to ways of worship. In each of these techniques, the ultimate goal is the same: the realization of the oneness of each human soul (the Atman) with the world soul (Brahman). That is, each person must realize that the world in which he/she lives is a world of illusion, that the idea that each person is a separate entity is an illusion; in reality all are part of the one whole. Realization of this (through fostering love of a god outside oneself, intellectual understanding of these philosophical concepts, meditative or intuitive ways of reaching this sense of oneness) will result in the escape from the wheel of rebirth and, upon death, the merging of one’s soul with Brahman in a state, of course undescribed, but referred to as absolute bliss.

Golden pointed buildings

 

Gargoyle-protected front door of a religious building.

There is thus a tension in Hinduism: the tension between fulfilling ones responsibilities or Dharma, and achieving ultimate release or salvation called Moksha. Much of Hindu thought and action revolves around ways to deal with this dichotomy and make it possible to do both, to fulfill ones duties to society, and the family, and to progress towards the ultimate goal. However, for the ordinary worshiper, this ultimate idea of escape from the wheel of samasra is a dream for a future life; most of the believer’s actions will involve this life, leading a better life in this world with all that that entails, both spiritually and materially.

Scholars have said that Hinduism is both monotheistic and polytheistic. There is certainly a plethora of deities in Hinduism (one account says 330 million), each with different aspects and different functions. However, the most central doctrine holds that all gods and goddesses are simply manifestations of one single underlying divinity, the Brahman referred to above. This divinity is often expressed as a trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, representing the forces of creation (Brahma), preservation (Vishnu) and destruction (Shiva). As far as worship goes, Brahma is seldom worshiped, his place being taken by Devi (the Goddess) in one of her many forms (the work of creation is over, and thus his role is essentially completed). Both Vishnu, in one of his 10 aspects (called avatars) and Shiva, in his symbolic form (the lingam, or male sex symbol) and his personified form, are widely worshiped in Nepal. One of Vishnu’s ten avatars or incarnations is Buddha: this represents an attempt on the part of Hinduism to reincorporate the successful Buddhist religion into Hinduiam. This amalgamation of Vishnu and Buddha is one reason for the prevalence of Hindu forms in Buddhist temples in Nepal and vice versa.

Hindus in Nepal, like Hindus in India, while they may worship many gods at different times and for different reasons, often pick one god or aspect of a god as a special deity and focus much of their worship around this deity. Each deity has special forms of worship and special celebrations: these festivals form an integral part of worship in Nepal.

For a list of the festivals of Nepal, both Hindu and Buddhist, please click on the following site, which also has great pictures;
http://www.thamel.com/htms/festivals.htm

Another good site on festivals is:
http://www.visitnepal.com/nepal_information/nepal_festivals.php

This generic site: http://www.visitnepal.com/nepal_information also has good information on a number of other themes, such as medicine, spirituality, religious art, etc. Once on this site, you can click on the relevant sub headings.

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Buddhism

Child dressed in religious garments

Buddhism can be said to have originated in Nepal since the Himalayan kingdom in which Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born and lived is currently the city of Lumbini in the southern part of Nepal. Prince Gautama’s father was the king of a minor principality, a member of the Khastriya (ruler and warrior caste) and the young prince was groomed to succeed his father. He was married and had a child (appropriately named Rahula or fetters) The young prince, who was raised as a Hindu, at the age of 29 found himself dissatisfied with his life and desiring to understand the way to escape the wheel of Samsara. In what became known as the Great Renunciation, he left his home and family and spent 6 years in a homeless state, practicing austerities and meditating in the hope of understanding the way of release from Samsara. Eventually he rejected this extreme asceticism, ate and drank, and, according to legend, settled under a fig tree (afterwards known as the Bodhi or enlightenment tree) and, in a night spent wrestling with temptation, achieved a state of awareness of the reality of the world, known as enlightenment. He then devoted the remaining 40 plus years of his life to teaching this newfound system.

While much of Buddhist ideas are based on Hindu ones, Buddha reinterpreted some of these ideas, and, because he rejected the sacredness of the Vedas, and the primary role of priests as intercessors with the gods, as well as the caste system, the religion was seen as a separate one and not just a sect of Hinduism. Buddha was not interested in metaphysical speculation and when asked such question as “What is the nature of god?” simply replied that this was not relevant to man’s main task, achieving enlightenment. Buddha saw himself in the role of a physician, ministering to the ills (unhappiness) of mankind; he wanted to restore morality to religious life, seeing that his had become stifled in the minutia of ritual and philosophy.

Buddha’s basic ideas are summed up in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Four Truths are Buddha’s analysis of the human condition and the Eightfold Path represents the way to overcome the problems of human life and achieve salvation (escape from the wheel of Samsara). The first Noble Truth is that this is a world of constant change, of impermanence and hence one that is inherently imperfect and filled with unhappiness and sorrow. This unhappiness is not a result of circumstance as most people believe, but is an inherent quality of existence. Thus, any ordinary solution to a specific problem that causes misery is only temporary and another unhappy situation will eventually arise. The second truth is that all suffering has the same cause and that cause is desire, the wish for things to be different than they are, to be permanent when all is changing. It is this desire that causes karmic action, that causes continued existence, the operation of the wheel of Samsara The third truth is that unhappiness can be eliminated with the elimination of desire. If one can end desire then one will end the cause of all suffering and, at the same time, will end one’s rebirth. It is desire that allows rebirth to occur. The fourth truth is that desire can be ended and the way to do this is to follow the Eightfold Path as outlined by the Buddha. This eightfold path is just that, a path to be followed in its entirety, knowing that it may take many lifetimes to reach the end of the path, the time when all desires are eliminated, including the desire to end suffering.

The eightfold path has eight qualities that must be sought simultaneously; in other words all eight of them must be followed at the same time. These qualities are: right or perfect understanding, aspiration, speech, action, livelihood, effort, thought and contemplation. What do these mean and how does one follow them?

Right understanding means to study and think about one’s real place in the world, the understand the illusion of permanence and individuality, to cultivate an understanding of the oneness of all beings, the absence of the individual and understanding the constant change in everything. Right aspiration means to truly want to end suffering, not just for oneself but for all beings, human, animal, divine and hell dwellers. In other words, one must expand one’s concept of self to include all living beings and must aspire to save everyone, since all are interconnected. Right speech is different from simple truth telling. It means in every situation to not only tell the truth but to speak in ways that are beneficial to others and not harmful to them. Right action means in every action to be mindful of what one is doing, and to engage only in actions that bring benefit and not harm to others. Right livelihood flows from right action and means to engage in work that does not harm other creatures: thus many common careers, such as that of butcher, tanner, warrior, money lender, etc must be avoided as they bring harm to others. Even farming destroys countless insects and thus bring harm to the creatures of the world. Right effort means to put forth effort to realize the goal but not to waste energy on unimportant things that lead away from the goal. In other words, one must be single minded, one must follow the path all the time; otherwise one will backslide. Right thought means to control ones thoughts at all times and to avoid thoughts of hatred, greed, despair, and all negative emotions. In one of the most beloved Buddhist scriptures, the Dhammapada, Buddha says that a person’s mind does him/her the most harm or good. Lastly right contemplation means that one must meditate, one must use this faculty to rise above the mundane life of this world; meditation can clear the mind, can engage one’s sixth sense, one’s intuition and this can lead to the elimination of desire.

The center of Buddhist life has always been the community of monks and nuns, the Sangha. Buddha himself felt that the best way to follow the eightfold path was to distance oneself as far as possible from the temptations of the world and that this can best be done in the role of monk or nun. These monastics take three great vows of poverty, celibacy and non-harm to living creatures. They live in communities called monasteries and, in addition to following the Path, provide many services to the lay community including education, funerals, festivals, humanitarian aid, etc. While in every Buddhist country, the sangha or community of monks and nuns, is the center of the Buddhist religion, most practicing Buddhists elect to remain as laity. Thus, over the past 2 and ½ millennia, many practices were developed specifically for lay people.

After Buddha’s death, the religion grew and spread and took many forms and incorporated many ideas and practices which have little to do with Buddha’s original ideas. It branched into two main branches (some scholars say three main branches) the Theravada (Teaching of the Elders) and Mahayana (Great Vehicle). The Theravada form, practiced in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, continues the Buddhist emphasis on individual striving to follow the path to enlightenment. The Mahayana Path tried to make Buddhism accessible to all by providing help with this path. Boddhisattvas (literally, Buddha’s to be) are enlightened beings who take a great vow to save all beings on earth and who elect to be reborn to do so; appealing to these beings for help can aid one on the path to enlightenment. Most Buddhists in Nepal are Mahayana Buddhists and they mostly belong to a sub sect of Mahayana called Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism (see next section.)

For more information on Buddhism in general, and on Mahayana Buddhism in particular, click on the following site.
Buddhist Studies: The Rise of the Mahayana

This site also a short section on Buddhism in Nepal.

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Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism

Some people consider that Vajryana is a separate school from Mahayana and developed from it. Others consider it a sect of Mahayana. However, since Tantrism strongly influences both Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal, it is best to look at Tantric ideas on their own as they apply to both religions. Tantrism was a movement which developed in India around the 6th century in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Essentially it is both a philosophical movement and a set of practices designed to cut through the chains that bind one to the wheel of rebirth and to achieve enlightenment quickly. It arose from dissatisfaction at the long cycle of many rebirths posited by both Hinduism and Buddhism before one achieved the correct ethical mind set to be ready to achieve enlightenment. It is often referred to as an esoteric (hidden) form of religion as opposed to the open, readily accessible more “normal” forms of Buddhism and Hinduism. Because it seeks to find a sudden path to enlightenment, avoiding the long and careful following of a particular path (Buddhism) or a particular school of thought and action (Hinduism), it stresses the essential need for a teacher (guru) to guide one on the often confused and easily misunderstood series of practices that make up Tantrism.

The symbol of Vajrayana Buddhism, the vajra (thunderbolt) is a common ritual implement used in ceremonies, often in conjunction with a bell symbolizing enlightenment. Although it is sometimes also translated as "diamond" (i.e. "hard"), the vajra (symbol of this school) was originally the thunderbolt of Indra (the Hindu god of War); and in Vajrayana it symbolizes the magical power of Tantrism. Tantric magic uses a number of physical techniques and objects, including mandalas, (sacred diagrams), mantras, (sacred formulas for recitation --the most famous one being, "Om, mane padme hum" The jewel is in the lotus), and mudras, (sacred gestures). While Tantric magic could be aimed at achieving ordinary desires it is most often seen as a means of achieving liberation in addition to or apart from other Buddhist or Hindu practices and achieving enlightenment quickly and in this life. Hindu Tantrism expresses its magical power through goddesses such as Kali (goddess of death and destruction often referred to as the life giving mother—thus encapsulating both the creative and destructive forces in one deity and thus showing the unity of all things, including life and death). Likewise Vajrayana Buddhism emphasizes female figures. Vajrayana balances male Bodhisattvas with female Bodhisattvas as attendants of the various Buddhas. And while Buddhas tend to be regarded as male in all branches of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism supplies female figures corresponding to each Buddha, like the "savioresses" Green Tara, White Tara, and Mamaki, who actually vow to always be reborn as women in the process of leading all beings to salvation. Vajrayna symbolism always balances male and female, benign and threatening deities, oneness and multiplicity, in its attempts to make practitioners realize the unity of all things. Tantric art encapsulates these dichotomies and shows fierce as well as gentle images.

For a site with Tantric art and explanations of the sexual aspect of this art, see the following site:
Love and Passion in Tantric Buddhist Art

Another part of this same site has detailed information on many aspects of Tantrism
http://www.kheper.net/topics/Tantra/index.html

Nepal is home to hundreds of temples and shrines including those which have been selected as world heritage sites. One of the most characteristic aspects of Buddhist temples in Nepal are the eyes painted on the stupas which look in all four directions.

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Kumari Devi: The Living Goddess

One of the most fascinating aspects of Nepalese religion is the institution of the Kumari Devi, the Living Goddess. While today the Kumari cult is associated most closely with the Newari Hindu community in the Kathmandu Valley, it was the Vajrayana Buddhist which actually established the tradition of worshipping a young virgin girl as the royal Living Goddess. The Kumari Devi is a young girl chosen from the Sakya community in Nepal (Sakya is the clan to which Buddha belonged) who serves as the Goddess for a limited period form the time of her selection (usually she is between the ages of 4-7) when chosen) until the day of her first menstrual period, when she is no longer sacred and a new Kumari is chosen.

The process of choosing the Kumari follows an elaborate Tantri ritual, similar to the choosing of an incarnate lama (such as the Dalai lama) in Tantric Buddhism. First, candidates are selected from the Sakya clan families and are then examined by a group of testers to see if they meet the 32 attributes of perfection. These are mainly physical attributes such as the color of her eyes, the shape of her teeth, the sound of her voice. Once she is determined to have no physical defects, her horoscope is cast to ensure that there are no negative influences. Then the candidate is taken alone to a darkened room where are “confront” the goddess of which she is an incarnation, the Hindu goddess Durga (the Vajrayana Buddhist call this goddess, Vajradevi) This room is deliberately made to be terrifying with stuffed and mounted animal heads, demon-masked dancers, yells and other frightening noises, etc. The candidate who emerges form this test show lack of fear and remains calm in the face of these frightening sights and sounds is elected as the new Kumari Devi. The final test is similar to that for the Dalai Lama and other incarnated lamas: she picks from a row of similar items, those used by her predecessor, the last Kumari Devi.

The Kumari Devi lives in the Kumari Ghar (Kumari House) on Durbar Square in Kathmandu where she makes daily appearances to her worshippers from the balcony and engages in other ritual and ceremonial acts, the most important being her participation in the Indra Jatra festival which is one of the few times she leaves the Kumari Ghar. Her expenses are paid for by the government; while in the past, this did not include study, in concession to the fact that she will need an education after her tenure as Kumari, she now has a tutor. Since she must be physically perfect, her feet do not touch the floor after her selection and installation in the Kumari Ghar and her first menstrual period brings her tenure to an end. She is believed to have great power and is widely worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists.

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